Can a Vegan Win the Presidency?

Posted in: Animal Rights

During what will now be remembered as the first round of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker created some drama when he announced that, in violation of official procedure, he was publicly releasing documents marked “committee confidential.”

“This is about the closest I’ll ever come in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” Booker said, daring his colleagues to expel him for his defiance.

It takes a 2/3 vote of the Senate to expel a member, so Booker’s seat was never in danger. Moreover, it appears that the documents Booker revealed had already been cleared for release.

Thus, Booker’s seemingly principled stand looks more like a stunt. Informed political observers understand that Booker was playing to the cameras and the voters watching at home. Like several other Senate Democrats, Booker may be positioning himself for a run for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. A sitting senator can appeal to the party’s activist base by taking bold action or even just appearing to.

Yet if Senator Booker’s document dump was not really an I-am-Spartacus moment, he may face a genuine one in the not-too-distant future if he launches a presidential campaign. As an Ivy-educated Democratic lawyer-turned-politician with a strong impulse towards bipartisanship, Booker may seem to be cut from the same cloth as former President Obama. But whereas Booker would not be our first African American president, he would be our first vegan one. Is America ready for a vegan president?

Food and Beyond

Some readers might be skeptical that voters would care that a politician is vegan. Yet it matters.

Food can play an important role in politics. Cynthia Nixon was always unlikely to defeat incumbent New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the primary election last week, but she further harmed her electoral prospects when she was caught on camera ordering a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese and lox. New Yorkers were rightly horrified by that godawful combination. They understand that lox (or for vegans like me, a delicious ersatz fish-like spread) belongs on a plain, sesame, poppy, everything, onion, or garlic bagel (or a bialy), not a cinnamon raisin bagel. Blech!

The problem was not so much that the former Sex and the City star was making a poor food choice in her bagel pairing (although she was), but that in so doing she displayed a kind of cultural illiteracy. Like Donald Trump eating pizza with a knife and fork or Mitt Romney claiming that his “favorite meat is hot dog,” Nixon’s bagel lox pas showed her to be a phony—someone who tries but fails to be just like the people she hopes to lead.

A vegan politician likewise risks coming across as removed from the hoi polloi. He cannot show his love for all things Americana by eating a stick of deep fried butter at the Iowa State Fair. Even in non-gustatory settings, a vegan politician may be seen as judgmental or effete, even when he is neither. Symbolic food politics is, well, more symbolic than fact-based.

Furthermore, just being vegan can spur opposition from the animal agriculture industry, even when a vegan politician does not use his position to promote veganism. Senator Booker himself is a key example. His official website touts his work in authoring “legislation that limits unnecessary chemical testing on animals.” It also notes that he “has pushed to put an end to cruel practices at government-run USDA research facilities” and has urged “the Department of Agriculture to strengthen standards before food products are permitted to be labeled ‘humanely raised.’”

Those are hardly radical positions. Indeed, the very fact that other, non-vegan, senators joined with Senator Booker in promoting these measures makes clear that they fall well short of abolishing all or even a substantial fraction of the animal exploitation that vegans (like Senator Booker and me) consider unethical. Nevertheless, the modesty of the measures Senator Booker supports has not stopped such industry groups as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association from labeling him a “radical vegan” in an effort to discredit even such baby steps.

Would the Vegan Movement Benefit From a President Booker?

The attacks on Senator Booker’s veganism would increase the closer he seemed to success. That is speculation, of course. The only other vegan to seek a major-party presidential endorsement was Dennis Kucinich, whose polling never made him a sufficiently serious candidate to inspire many attacks.

How might a serious vegan candidacy play out? We might contrast it with a fictional vegetarian one.

In Graham Greene’s darkly comic novel about Haiti under Papa Doc, The Comedians, the reader meets Mr. Smith, a former 1948 presidential candidate who ran on the Vegetarian Party ticket. Needless to say, Senator Booker will not be seeking the nomination of the Vegetarian or Vegan Party—neither of which exists. He will run as a Democrat and thus need to appeal to voters who regard veganism as at best weird and at worst threatening. Given Senator Booker’s penchant for centrism and compromise, he would surely soft-pedal his veganism, describing it as a personal lifestyle choice or not for everyone.

Could Booker win under such circumstances? Probably. The New Jersey economy has a large animal agriculture sector; yet Booker has managed to represent his state without generating too much opposition due to his veganism. He would likely navigate around his veganism as a presidential candidate as well.

Booker’s understandable politically motivated timidity on vegan-related issues raises the question whether a Booker presidency would actually advance the cause of veganism and animal rights. If, as president, Booker were constantly downplaying the moral, environmental, and health reasons for veganism, he could crowd out or undercut bolder undertakings by more forthright activists. A Booker presidency might result in the passage of a few largely symbolic animal welfare measures but ultimately end up reinforcing the public’s acceptance of animal exploitation, so long as it satisfies industry-friendly standards of “humaneness.” If the most prominent vegan on the planet were to largely abjure the bully pulpit, the net effect could be to lead the public to dismiss more vociferous vegans as extremists.

Yet one can rarely predict whether moderation and compromise will prevent more radical change or instead, serve as a stepping stone on the path towards such change. In retrospect, it is fairly easy to point to both phenomena. Consider a well-known example of the former. In both western Europe and the United States, the adoption of various forms of social insurance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries displaced more radical proposals for the abolition of capitalism. As a recent example of the latter, consider how promotion of civil unions and domestic partnerships but not marriage for same-sex couples relatively quickly paved the way for marriage equality.

My own best guess is that a Booker presidency would be on balance good for the animal rights movement. Even if a President Booker did not make animal protection or veganism an important part of his official agenda, just by living as a vegan, he would be a role model.

But that is only a guess. In deciding whether to support Cory Booker or any other candidate for president in 2020, we vegans would do well to treat his veganism as a likely modest bonus rather than a decisive factor. Accordingly, when I go to the polls in the 2020 Democratic primary, my overriding concern will be the same as that of millions of other voters, regardless of whether they are vegans: which candidate is best positioned to defeat the execrable incumbent? Whether or not America is ready for a vegan president, surely we are ready—indeed desperately in need of—a minimally decent one.

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